Atoms and Bits…

"This can be a very big company someday, because even if the particulars of our technology will be different in the future, as they certainly will, the problems we're attacking are fundamental, and will never go away. We should make that clear to our investors."

I spoke words to that effect to our founder Jerry Swartz sometime around 1980, as we were discussing how best to explain ourselves in that year's Annual Report.

At the time of that conversation, Symbol Technologies had annual sales of around $1 million, was still a few years away from turning a profit, and had only just taken the first tentative steps toward a focus on the bar code scanning products that would become our growth engine for the following decade… a decade in which we doubled sales every year.

The "fundamental problems" I had in mind were those related to connecting the "world of atoms" to "the world of bits" — the physical world of "stuff" and the computer systems we use to track it, manage it, account for it and control it.

I felt that if we described our vision in those terms, and staked our aspirations to that framework, we might fail, but we wouldn't do so by dint of a playing field too cramped or subject to obsolescence. Regardless of how technology evolved, driven by our efforts or those of others, it seemed clear that solutions effectively linking these two domains would always be important. The markets around the development and delivery of those solutions should grow to be large and valuable. They did.

Starting with that annual report we began to articulate our fundamental purpose in these terms, externally and in our own thinking and planning. We talked about connecting atoms and bits, computers with the physical world. We said that we were "The eyes of the computer" (Jerry particularly liked that phrase of his).

We could have said that we were "The Bar Code Scanning Company" or even "The Hand Held Laser Scanning Company" (both accurate but narrow descriptions at the time). But by laying claim to higher ground, we staked out territory in which to advance what became a much broader agenda.

Fifteen years later we had become leaders not just in bar code scanning, but also in mobile computing and wireless networking — all technologies critical to solutions at the boundary between bits and atoms. A few years further down the road, and the "atoms and bits" articulation of our strategic intent was still valid, despite the fact that our revenues had grown a thousand fold since that day in 1980.

And we were by then solidly profitable, for many years running. One of the reasons why: because we chose to do something hard. Delivering technology that works, and works well, at the boundary between bits and atoms is tough. The world of atoms is inherently messy. Bar codes get dirty or torn. Users drop scanners and hand held computers. RF communications encounter interference. This is, as Jerry use to put it, "blue collar computing." Messy.

You can earn a buck by getting good at any business, but you only get to make a lot of money if you do really hard things (that customers care about), really well. That's what we did. We engineered solutions to the messiness of the physical world. Scanners that read poorly printed and abused bar codes. Computers that could be dropped without damage. Networks that worked in the real world.

We did these hard things well, better than others. Our unique skills and focus held off competition many times our size, and allowed us to grow profitably for many years.

I read somewhere that the great majority of life on Earth exists at boundaries (between air and sea and land). I've often thought about how this is suggestive of the richness of opportunity at the boundary between bits and atoms. It's a good place to do business.

I was attracted to Intelleflex, where I'm currently serving as Executive Chairman, precisely because we've challenged ourselves to do a hard thing ("Extended Capability RFID") well (delivering rich functionality, robust performance, great price point) along that same atoms-to-bits boundary. I like our chances for significant success.

So, this little story has been about the importance of choosing a sector in which to do business, and of the articulation of a vision that enables long term growth and value creation. Symbol's founders (I wasn't one) set our initial targeting. Debate, rigorous enough to break up that founding team, set the trajectory beyond our earliest beginnings. And our chosen way of answering the question, "What business are we really in?" provided scope to grow an interesting, large and successful company.

Choosing and appropriately defining your playing field doesn't ensure success however. Next time I'll share a few thoughts about what separates hits from misses, making reference to our national pastime…

Posted in Business, Careers, Strategy.

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